Clinic tries to keep pace with needs

As demand for services grows, Access Carroll wants more volunteers

February 18, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

As Access Carroll celebrates its second-year anniversary, the demand for services at the free, nonprofit medical clinic in Westminster has sharply grown.

Uninsured patients and those who can't afford expensive premiums and co-pays came to the clinic for nearly 4,000 appointments last year, Access Carroll's executive director Tammy Black said.

"We're actually worried about how we're going to keep up with it," Black said of the demand for services.

prospective patients can earn up to twice the federal poverty guidelines, or $20,410 for one person in 2007.

But more patients seen by Access Carroll and Mission of Mercy, Westminster's other free clinic, means less strain on the emergency room at Carroll Hospital Center.

Statewide, more than a third of emergency room visits are for non-urgent conditions that could be treated elsewhere, the Maryland Health Care Commission reported in late 2006.

Emergency room physicians are often the only doctors uninsured patients ever see.

Much of Access Carroll's staff has a background in emergency care.

Dr. Daniel Aukerman, who volunteers at Access Carroll, said his patients frequently remark that they are "treated in a way I ought to be treated as a patient."

Black was an emergency room nurse at Carroll Hospital Center, as is volunteer nurse Trish Ruther. Medical assistant Kris Makoutz also works as an emergency room technician.

Many patients that come to the hospital for emergencies then follow up at Access Carroll, Ruther said.

Out of the 20,000 people estimated to lack proper health insurance in Carroll County, some 70 percent of those suffer from chronic illnesses, said Linda M. Ryan, Mission of Mercy's executive director.

Diabetes has become endemic, especially among Access Carroll's patients.

In a county with one of the highest obesity rates in the state, some 6.4 percent of adult residents have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County Inc.

The Diabetes Center at Carroll Hospital Center has tripled its staff in the past year, according to center director Susan Steinweg.

For lower-income patients, "the cheaper food is the bad food," Makoutz said, while fresh fruits and vegetables are costly.

At Access Carroll, seven doctors volunteer in-house, but most for only a few hours a week.

Black said she could use more physicians to add night and weekend hours and reach more patients. Appointments can be scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

"I'm crying for more physicians now, to add more times," Black said. "The ones I've got are doing all they can."

More than 80 community members have volunteered their time, money or skills, including specialists who see patients with specific needs in their private medical practices. More doctors to handle psychiatric referrals in particular are in demand, Black and Ryan said.

Aukerman was recently named Access Carroll's medical director, a responsibility he will juggle in addition to his full-time job with Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc. at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor.

With his background in family practice, Aukerman treats the clinic's growing number of mentally ill patients, and as a fluent Spanish speaker, he serves the county's growing Hispanic immigrant population.

Support from Carroll Hospital Center, state grants, the county health department, local government agencies and donations keep Access Carroll afloat. But operating costs are high. Chipping in for the clinic's $30,000 annual lease, equipment and cleaning supplies aren't always a benefactor's priority, Black said.

"The facility and all these things need to be in place for us to function," she said. "It's not glamorous, but it's a bare necessity."

Some area churches make monthly donations that can be used for medication or rent, she said.

Instead of hiring a janitor, Black and her three daughters spend several hours vacuuming, mopping and scrubbing down the clinic every Friday, when it is closed.

The state-of-the-art facility impressed state Sen. Larry E. Haines during his first tour last week at the clinic's second anniversary party.

"It's just like a mini-hospital," Haines said. State Del. Nancy Stocksdale and County Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer also attended the celebration.

To connect more patients with specialists for referrals, Access Carroll recently received a yearlong $100,000 grant from the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission.

"The thing that impressed me the most was their amount of community support," Karla R. Roskos, the commission's chair of capital and operations funding, said after visiting the clinic. "When we know there's a lot of community collaboration coming together, it makes a project like this much more successful."

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